THE stark inequalities facing women in the North East were laid bare on Wednesday (March 13) night to the person who will soon become the region’s top political figure.

All six candidates vying to become North East mayor took to the stage at a packed Newcastle Civic Centre and promised to meet challenges set out by the One Million Women and Girls campaign.

Each of the hopefuls vowed during the debate to sign up to a set of pledges laid down by the campaign – including commitments to take practical steps to improve the lives of women and girls if they become mayor and explicitly consider the specific impact of each of their policies on the female population.

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The candidates due to contest the historic mayoral election on May 2 are independent Jamie Driscoll, Conservative Guy Renner-Thompson, Labour’s Kim McGuinness, Reform UK’s Paul Donaghy, the Green Party’s Andrew Gray, and Liberal Democrat Aidan King.

Campaigner Cullagh Warnock told the audience that while issues like transport, housing, and economic regeneration are often seen as gender-neutral, they impact very differently on women and girls.

For example, women make up the majority of statutory homeless people and domestic abuse is the second most common trigger of homelessness in the North East.

Women in England need more than 12 times their average annual salary to buy a house, whereas men need just eight, and make up a majority of low-paid, part-time, temporary, and zero-hours workers.

The main flashpoints in Wednesday night’s debate came during questions about how the new mayor could address the region’s shortage of affordable homes, particularly for women fleeing domestic abuse. 

After Mr Renner-Thompson pledged to use the mayor’s powers to drive the building of more new houses, some of which could be used as safe places of respite for victims of domestic abuse, Ms McGuinness won big cheers from the audience for calling for a system that is “about removing the perpetrator and not the victim” of abuse.

The current Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, the only woman standing in the mayoral race, also pledged free childcare for women going back into work or training and said she would “work as hard to smash the gender pay gap as to smash the North-South divide”.
Women in the North East earn 5.8 per cent less on average than men, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Mr Donaghy was pressed by debate chair and former BBC journalist Jacqui Hodgson about a promise to give people from the North East priority on social housing waiting lists.

The Sunderland councillor said: “You have people coming into this country illegally and that is having a knock-on effect on our social housing. People who have been on a waiting list for many years can’t get into social housing. Women fleeing domestic violence should be top of the list.”

All of the other five candidates agreed that priority should be based on need rather than where people are from.

Mr Driscoll, who is the sitting North of Tyne mayor, spoke about his authority having substantially increased the number of women in training courses, pumping money into the building of affordable homes, and promised to create a £5 million “radical prevention fund” to help women in crisis access support services.

He also said that a new project he had been working on with leaders across the North of England to improve safety and accessibility at railway stations is expected to launch in the North East this summer.

Mr Driscoll is among the candidates promising to bring the region’s buses fully back into public hands, along with Ms McGuinness and Mr Gray, and said on Wednesday that he would put an annual cap on ticket fares.

Mr Gray spoke about the need for real-time bus service updates so that passengers are not forced to wait for long periods at dark stations, adding that he would put investment into community services so that people have less need to make long journeys. 

The Green candidate added: “Unless we learn to listen to the women who are running so much of society we probably won’t be able to build that stronger, better, North East that we all believe in.”

Ms McGuinness and Mr Donaghy also pledged to deliver improved security measures on public transport, such as extra train guards and CCTV, while Dr King said such safety upgrades could be paid for through the proceeds of his flagship pledge to build the country’s largest onshore windfarm across rural Durham and Northumberland.

The Liberal Democrat, who is a physician at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, also said the region needed to start building more homes on greenfield land to address its housing shortage – pinpointing sites near the mothballed Leamside railway line and the proposed gigafactory at the old Blyth Power Station.

Mr Renner-Thompson said he would “put the needs and wants of women at the forefront of policy-making” and deliver early interventions in schools to encourage girls to take up careers in higher-paid industries, such as offshore wind and other industries based at the Blyth Energy Central hub.